Abusive bosses who target employees with ridicule and public criticism have a widespread detrimental effect on the entire workplace, as co-workers of the bullied employees suffer from “secondhand” or “vicarious supervisory abuse,” according to a new study.
The research team found that vicarious supervisory abuse is associated with job frustration, abuse of other coworkers, and a lack of perceived workplace support beyond the effects of the abusive supervisor.
“Although the effects of abusive supervision may not be as physically harmful as other types of dysfunctional behavior, such as workplace violence or aggression, the actions are likely to leave longer-lasting wounds, in part, because abusive supervision can continue for a long time,” noted Dr. Paul Harvey, an associate professor of organizational behavior at the University of New Hampshire.
Those wounds are not just felt by the employees victimized by the bullying bosses, he added.
Vicarious supervisory abuse is defined as the observation or awareness of a supervisor abusing a co-worker. Examples of vicarious supervisory abuse include an employee hearing rumors of abusive behavior from coworkers, reading about such behaviors in an email, or actually witnessing the abuse of a coworker.
“When vicarious abusive supervision is present, employees realize that the organization is allowing this negative treatment to exist, even if they are not experiencing it directly,” the researchers said in the study, which was published in the Journal of Social Psychology.
For the study, researchers surveyed 233 people who work in a variety of occupations in the Southeast United States. Demographically, the group was 46 percent men, 86 percent white, had an average age of 42.6 years, had worked in their job for seven years, had worked at their company for 10 years, and worked an average of 46 hours a week. They were asked about supervisory abuse, vicarious supervisory abuse, job frustration, perceived organizational support, and coworker abuse.
The researchers found similar impacts of first-hand supervisory abuse and second-hand vicarious supervisory abuse, including greater job frustration, a tendency to abuse other coworkers, and a lack of perceived organizational support.
In addition, the negative effects from either type of abuse were intensified if the coworker was a victim of both kinds of supervisory abuse.
“Our research suggests that vicarious abusive supervision is as likely as abusive supervision to negatively affect desired outcomes, with the worst outcomes resulting when both vicarious abusive supervision and abusive supervision are present,” the researchers said in the study.
“Top management needs further education regarding the potential impacts of vicarious abuse supervision on employees to prevent and/or mitigate the effects of such abuse.”